An Amazonian Waste of Time

NAOMI HIRAHARA

As published writers, we stumble in the dark, attempting to measure how our books are selling in the present time. We feel sharp corners and say, "Ouch, I guess things aren’t going that well." Or feel plush fabric and sit in that luxury for a while. Then six months later, the lights come on and we realize that the things that we had been feeling were nothing like the reality before us.

Yet we still play the game and do the drill. Yes, I’m talking about frequenting our local bookstores and counting how much stock has turned over (some bookstores even have dates on their bar code stickers stating when the books were ordered). We use our cell phones to call Ingram’s, one of the larger book distributors, to find out how many our books have been ordered. (For the uninitiated, the number is 615-213-6803. A caveat–this only represents a portion of your sales and does not include books shipped directly by your publisher to stores or other distributors.) And the worst yet, we check our rankings on Amazon.com on a regular basis and depending on your neurosis factor, this could mean weekly, daily, or hourly.

Now I know most of us are lost causes, but I’m writing this for the benefit of our brothers and sisters who will soon be seeing their mystery titles in print. Regarding the biggest offense, Amazon slumming–all I can say is, don’t do it. Yes, your heart will soar as your ranking edges to the low four figures for a hot second, but it will also sink as the numbers for your precious child falls to 150,000 or worse. Still don’t believe me? Here are three quick reasons not to.

1) Amazon sales are most likely only a very small percentage of your total sales. We’ve heard this time and time again, especially from bestselling authors. Last year Lynn Viehl of Paperback Writer kindly e-mailed me her sales data for her USA Today bestselling mass paperback book, IF ANGELS BURN. She was surprised that her Amazon and BN.com sales figures were so low, in spite of ranking in the top 500-1,000 sales of BN.com and 2,000-5,000 on Amazon.com. Between the two of them, during a brief time span, she reported that she had sold less than a hundred copies total. (Actually, it looked to me that she had sold almost 300 copies–but then accounting is not my thing!) For bestsellers, it’s the stats from Walmart, Costco, Target, and the chains that separate the Big Boys/Girls from the rest.

And because each book may be sold a little differently, this percentage cannot be standardized. Some authors may do their best selling though brick-and-mortar independent bookstores. Many presses, both small and big, are also discovering that they need to go where people already congregate–churches, craft shows, etc.–and sell books there. Those sales will not be reflected in an Amazon ranking.

2) The ranking system is the mathematically equivalent of gobbledygook. Now, I say this because I’m not a numbers person as I indicated before. Most authors I know are also similarly mathematically challenged. There are, however, folks and academicians who really groove on numbers. Morris Rosenthal, the publisher of Foner Books, is one of them and has launched a new blog, The Rank Economy. He also is the author of What Amazon Sales Ranks Mean. It’s an amazing document, which includes a graph and, needless to say, a bunch of numbers.

I can only add to the confusion by offering my real world example–GREEN MAKERS, a very specialized nonfiction book that I edited and produced for a professional organization. After the book was officially released in April 2001, I placed the book on Amazon.com through the Amazon Advantage program. I’m the book’s official contact, so when orders come in for the book, I am directly e-mailed. I must then ensure that books are mailed to Amazon’s distribution center in Kentucky; all mailing costs to the distribution center must be absorbed by the publisher. (For a small press like ours, hardly any inventory is kept in the warehouse.)

First of all, some fast facts:

Publisher: Southern California Gardeners’ Federation

Pub Date: 2001

Print Run: 4,000

Printing Costs Per Copy: $3

Retail Price: $19.95

Wholesale Discounted Price: $12 (40% Discount)

Amazon Discounted Price: $8.98 (55% Discount)

Out of the 4,000 copies, 2,000 were given away to the membership of the Southern California Gardeners’ Federation. More than 1,000 have been sold so far. A bulk of the sales were made directly by the Federation through direct mail solicitations, press releases, and book events. Other than the Federation itself, the book is still being sold by one brick and mortar outlet, one direct mail/special events outlet, and Amazon.com. Since joining Amazon in 2001, we have sold a total of 78 books.

Just for our readers at Murderati, I followed the Amazon.com rankings for this very humble book for the past week:

Sunday (May 21) 202,709

Monday (May 22) 247,785

Tuesday (May 23) 404,535

Wednesday (May 24) 427,460 (later 71,862)*

Thursday (May 25) 130,022 (later 202,455)*

Friday (May 26) 230,864 (later 257,346)*

Saturday (May 27) 325,134 (later 366,433)

Sunday (May 28) 374,337 (later 414,163)*

Monday (May 29) 470,316 (later 473,093)*

Tuesday (May 30) 487,774

* Apparently the number changes throughout the day.

So what accounts for the spike in the number on Wednesday, you ask? Let’s look at our order report for the past year, organized by most recent date of order received:

April 10, 2006–5 books

February 27, 2006–6 books

November 14, 2005–3 books

October 31, 2005–1 book

October 24, 2005–4 books

August 8, 2005–2 books

August 1, 2005–1 book

So that’s it. No orders since April 10–yet our numbers have yoyo-ed from 71,862 to 487,774 during this past week. (I can only attribute the spike to a used book sale–which I’m not informed of, since the book would come from another party and not the publisher.)

So why are we hooked into Amazon, as if it can foretell our literary futures?

I’m not saying that the Amazon ranking is not some measure of success. Surely if you consistently rank from #1-#100, you are undeniably a bestseller. Yesterday this list included Patricia Cornwell, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Jeffrey Deaver, Alexander McCall Smith, John Sandford, Harlan Coben, and Mary Higgins Clark. No surprise.

If you are regularly in the 1,000 or less category, you share company with Jonathan Kellerman, Tami Hoag, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, and others. In "What Amazon Sales Ranks Mean," Rosenthal says, "Books with steady sales ranks below 1,000 are selling very well, topping several dozen copies a day as you approach 100."

But most of us are on the yo-yo track, where darkness unfortunately prevails.

3) And if your ranking is bad one day, so what? What are you going to do to remedy the situation that day? Walk down your street wearing a sandwich board advertising your book? Flog yourself until you bleed? Buy some books on Amazon yourself?

Ultimately the numbers that really count are those on your royalty statement, which is received only two times a year. Some editors are more open about numbers than others, so you may be able to get more regular reports about print runs, etc. outside of royalty reporting times. This information can be helpful. Even though my tendency is to be in dreamland about money matters, I’ve discovered that I need to do periodic evaluations based on hard numbers and quantifying past results. If we have poor sales, we need to attempt to figure out why. Is it what we’re writing about? Or perhaps our writing itself? Has it been the way our books are been promoted? Is it just the whims of the market? And if we feel impassioned to continue down the same writing path, we must be realistic and seek other financial ways to support our work.

I don’t think our Amazon ranking is going to help us in any real way in getting these answers. But I know that we are so starved for information about sales of our book that we grasp onto any little morsel–even one that may be rotten–and take it in.

In due time, the Mystery Writers of America will be offering a BookScan service for their members (the contract is currently being negotiating). This service will be limited, however, to the top 100 mystery books. Even though most of us won’t fall into the category, odds are that many will join and soon we’ll have new numbers that we can obsess over. Even though Bookscan figures don’t encompass all sales either, at least they will be hard numbers and not elusive ones that will change with the click of a button.

SOUTH OF THE BORDER SPAM: Nellie Estrada of Chino Hills describes how she ate Spam as a kid–"fried and rolled into a hot corn tortilla with a bite of a serrano chili and some salsa." Muy deliciosa! Okay, gang, you have less than 24 hours to submit your entries to the inaugural Mas Arai Spam Contest. Judges will be myself and Mas, with Haruo as our tiebreaker. E-mail them to The winner will be announced this Saturday at my event at Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena at 2 p.m. and posted next Wednesday here on Murderati and my website.

FREE TRIP TO JAPAN, ANYONE?: From the pages of Poets and Writers–Five five-month residencies, which include a monthly stipend of 400,000 yen (approximately $3,450) for living expenses, plus expenses for housing, transportation, and language study, are available to U.S. artists to live in Japan. Check out the website, www.jusfc.gov/commissn/guide.html.

Update! ADDING TO THE MADNESS: Just opened up an e-mail from Amazon. We received one order of GREEN MAKERS last night about 10 p.m. PST. Apparently that order helped to lower our 487,000 number to 127,910. Now we’re at 231,077 (3:14 p.m. Wednesday). What does this mean? Not a whole heck of a lot.

17 thoughts on “An Amazonian Waste of Time

  1. Pari

    Naomi,This is an important piece. Thank you for it.

    I’ve spent many an hour looking at my rankings at Amazon and either jumping for joy or descending into despond. Both activities are equally as stupid.

    It’s the same with listservs where some authors seem to get attention and others don’t. I can spend precious time wailing and wondering why I don’t have as vociferous of a following (stupid activities #2).

    You’re right that we authors are starved for information. We have no real way of gauging our sales. Lucky for me, I can call the University of New Mexico Press and they’ll tell me how many books remain at the warehouse — but I still don’t know how many have moved off of shelves and tables and into people’s homes.

    It’s frustrating sometimes. That’s why I think I adore fan mail so much. Through those kind comments from readers, at least I know that someone out there is enjoying my work.

    cheers

    Reply
  2. iden Ford

    Yes, Sarah Weinman did the numbers for Lee Child last year and COSTCO and WALMART were the big winners, Amazon at the bottom. I think the only thing I use the amazon stats for are to see if any significant jump in figures are tied into a review that I might not have seen. So if Maureen’s sales figures on the Canadian Amazon really jump, I google around to see if she has had a review or mention in one of the newspapers. But in the end, unless you are really up there, your gotta work at your own publicity and find ways to increase your exposure. FInd a famous person who likes your book like Stephen King did for Peter Robinson. His new book is terrific, but I call him a 15 year overnight success. There was a Bouchercon in Nottingham back in 1995 and he had nary a person in his signing line up. He called over to me and asked me if I would like him to sign my program. This is a true story. Maureen and I once gave him a ride home after an event they both did together. He was ranting about how Penguin did no publicity for him in those days. He is now with Mcclelland and Stewart. I hope he remembers those times and keeps his humility in place. I sometimes wonder.

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  3. JT Ellison

    Wow, Naomi. Another Wednesday of learning. I’ve heard rumors about writers watching their Amazon numbers constant fluctuations and getting very upset. It’s good to know that would be a waste of precious writing time. Im sure I’ll fall prey to some aspect of “Me Tracking”, but I won’t rely on Amazon for my fixes. Thanks for clearing some more fog with your great insider publishing tips.

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  4. Susan McB

    Yay, Naomi, for putting up such a clear and frank explanation. I know authors who put way too much stock in their Amazon numbers. It’s easy, in the beginning, to get hooked on seeing something “tangible” that tells us if our books are moving; but my editor has reminded me enough in the past three years that online sales are usually only around 1% of total sales, which pretty much weaned me of my Amazon addiction. Hope lots of folks read this piece and realize how futile it is to spend time worrying about Amazon figures.

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  5. Allison Brennan

    Excellent post. I used to fret over the Amazon numbers until a NYT bestselling author told me that she sold only about 300 books on Amazon, give or take, out of over 100,000 sold in the first royalty period. That’s less than .5%

    Reply
  6. Lorraine T.

    As a reader, this is a mind-blowing post for me. I had no idea writers watched amazon’s ranks, as they mean nothing. It’s a comparison of sales with every other book amazon carries across the board. You could sell books and still have your rank go down because more books about understanding your dog (#2) are being sold and that is shifting the numbers. If you still want to obsess however, the ranks are updated each hour.A plus of this post, for me, is that it explains why so many writers bad mouth amazon. I could never understand that, because I love it. Tho I live in a densely populated state (CT) I’m still over 20 miles from a book store, so buy all my books from amazon. For the avid reader, they are great, fast service, email notices, free shipping for buying over $25 worth of book, etc. I’d be lost without them.

    Reply
  7. Brett Battles

    Thank you, Naomi. This was really eye opening. I’ve heard before not to watch the Amazon ranking, but your post really explains why. I will take this to heart. My new mantra will be “resist the urge.”

    Reply
  8. Elaine

    I love Naomi’s blog titles! And many cheers for demistifing the Amazon numbers game. When my first book came out – I was enthralled with watching the numbers-and was overjoyed when they remained under four digits for weeks – and then a seasoned writer (bless her!) set me straight.

    So, okay-I still check them out now and then, but I’ve seen my first book (three years old) ranked lower (back to the four digits) than the second and third, only to find the numbers reversed the next day!

    Take heed you new writers and believe what Naomi hath written! Don’t fall in the trap, spend that time writing-or coming over to Murderati!

    Reply
  9. Allison Brennan

    Elaine, or you can be like me and have publishers marketplace track them for you! When I discovered that feature the obsession started . . . but now I’m only checking periodically. (They also post the BN numbers, which are cool). There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the numbers, and I know they don’t mean a lot in sales . . . until you get under 100.

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  10. Elaine

    Thanks, Allison-but you know what? I really think these number thingys are diabolical mind games to drive writers nuts! I don’t need help in that department.

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  11. Naomi

    Yes, Allison, don’t encourage the Evil E–there’s only so much the Murderati bunch can take.

    Seriously, thanks to all who have commented.

    I think that my message here is moderation. And don’t waste much time on numbers that don’t directly correlate with books sold. Looking at writers much bigger and greater than me passionately hawk their wares is a reminder that we all are pretty much in the same boat. Promote or perish.

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  12. Andi

    I would like to think myself so superior if I had a book out that I would not check numbers. Heh, right. i would be obsessive, I’m SURE. I have been since Cornelia Read’s book was released and have been going to check Amazon almost daily, checking her numbers and Lee Child’s – just to keep us humble, what the hell, Lee was at #3 for a few days. I think he’s “down” in the 30s now. Aww, gee.

    But it’s ludicrous stuff. The AMAZON bozos themselves don’t explain what the numbers mean, they change so constantly they cannot possible be reliable (I swear when they compare to “yesterday”, those numbers are completely random, bearing no relationship to what I remember seeing) and while I did read a couple explanations on the web about the meaning of those numbers, I just don’t find any of it useful. It’s junk science and that’s being polite. I mean come ON, what kind of sales can result in a jump, as you posted of #427,460 to 71,862 in one day – even if that’s the release day.I really would hope to find a way to block my browser from going to Amazon during the early weeks that my (totally non-existent) book were out in order to stop even TRYING to interpret such dumbth. There’s a useful page about it at http://www.rampant-books.com/mgt_amazon_sales_rank.htmbut even that has limited value.I’d recommend instead a website Cornelia showed me ages ago – the Hollywood Tarot at http://www.hollywoodtarot.com/.I miss Ruby Montana’s spam carving contest, which used to happen annually here over Mardi Gras Week. “Spamhenge” and “Spam Descending a Staircase” were two of the entries.

    Reply
  13. Naomi

    Andi–

    Thanks for stopping by. Stay tuned to Murderati. There will be a guest blogger later this month who I know you’ll like.

    Reply
  14. Robin Burcell

    Good blog, Naomi!Amazon is truly one of those humbling and thrilling sites. When my first mystery was published, I think Amazon was fairly new, as was the internet in our building. Everytime I passed a computer on my way in or out, I was checking that darn number. I even made a friend buy a book from Amazon (he was buying one anyway, and I paid the shipping cost to make up the difference) just to see what it would do to the numbers. Thank goodness I finally got over that obsession.

    I’m so much better than that… (and there’s this bridge for sale…) Truthfully, I do go on there on occassion. Because if I see any movement on the books then I have to wonder what was up that changed it? Why? Because it’s been several years since I’ve had a new book out, so my numbers tend to stay at a constant. I know where they should be, and when they’re not there (and one hopes the only place they’d move is up!) then I think to myself: aha! Something’s afoot. (The trained investigator in me, don’t you know.) The truth is that it is fun to see what will spike the numbers. It’s a good way to see if an ad, TV appearance, article, whatever, has made a difference. So I say use it as a tool. Use it wisely, and don’t obsess. Just buy all your books from your favorite indie store!

    Reply

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